A quizzical Christian engages the theory and practice of Kundalini Yoga.
“Wow—54 minutes!” my friend commented after seeing the announcement my iPhone meditation timer app had posted to Facebook. “I’m impressed!”
“Don’t be too impressed,” I told her. “It was Kundalini Yoga. I got to do stuff.”
Before I got my depression treated, my meditation practice was going great. I could sit in Centering Prayer (a modern revival of an ancient Christian contemplative practice) in external and internal stillness for a half-hour or more—in fact, I loved doing it and looked forward to it. But since I started taking an anti-depressant, I have found myself simply unable to quiet the mind without giving it something to do.
A recent article in Tricycle showed me I was not alone in this:
“After a few weeks on an SSRI she surfaced from her depression; but now she was buzzing, and her zazen was affected. ‘I got this tremendous surge, like caffeine, which stirred up thoughts and ideas. I had agitated, random, distracting thoughts and a ringing in my ears. It was really hard to meditate, hard to settle the waters. At first I couldn’t count my breath for even ten seconds. It was almost like being a beginner again.’ After her brain adapted to the antidepressant, the buzziness subsided, and her mind settled down.” [i]
The initial “buzziness” subsided for me too, but not enough to bring back the ability I had as a depressed person to slip into contemplative consciousness for substantial periods.
This is not a universal sequence of events; in fact, the opposite is often the case.
“One comment I heard again and again is that depression makes it difficult if not impossible to practice—which is not surprising given that ‘inability to concentrate’ appears prominently on the Hamilton Depression Rating Scale used by psychiatrists in diagnosis… When depressed people try to meditate…a major part of their meditative energy is going into fighting depression. Instead of letting it take them forward, they are using their meditation as an attempt to self-medicate. The bulk of their energy may go into obsessive ruminations or attempts to process emotional pain that feels stuck. They are facing a gradient that is too steep.” [ii]
For a long time, I resisted medication because I thought it was “cheating.” If I were really all, like, spiritual and stuff, I ought to be able to meditate my way out of this, right? This type of thinking is a big obstacle for many Buddhist Baby-Boomers in the West. One’s emotional state, in fact, is often taken as evidence of spiritual attainment; during a retreat with a group of college students who grew up in missionary families, several of them reported experiencing intense pressure to “always be cheerful in front of your non-Christian friends.”
I wonder what these kids’ missionary parents would have thought of the wild mood swings of Francis of Assisi? Or St. John of the Cross’s prolonged “dark night of the soul”?
My wife, a physician, thinks Francis was bi-polar—and he did have periods of intense exaltation alternating with times of deep depression. But I’m not sure that diagnosis covers it, because he also did a lot of things that seem just plain loopy. I often imagine, for instance, what it must have been like to be traveling with him on the day he left the road to preach to the birds.
“Father Francis, where are you…can we…what is he…he isn’t…Oh. My. God.”
From here, of course, it’s only a short step to the realization that most people who are generally recognized as holy have been perceived as crazy; even Jesus’ family “went to take charge of him, for they said, ‘He is out of his mind.’” (Mark 3:21) And I’ve often wondered what would have happened if Hildegard could have gotten her migraines managed, or Joan of Arc treated for the psychosis that anyone who heard voices in the church bells would surely be diagnosed with today. Would our spiritual heritage be the poorer for it? Are we “curing” people of sainthood with Zoloft?
“…[I]f long-term meditators are known to experience dark nights of the soul or desert wastelands on the path, how is one to know if one’s suffering is from one of the warning signs of a debilitating illness or simply piercing the veils of illusion? Is the characteristic ‘hollowness’ and ’emptiness’ of clinical depression altogether different from the experience of shunyata? By mistaking a glimpse of shunyata for a symptom of depression, might one risk medicating away the early stages of nirvana?
Just as it is naive to imagine meditation as a panacea for all psychological ills, perhaps it is a Western prejudice to insist that an enlightened master should be the picture of what we consider perfect mental health. Gelek Rinpoche tells a story about a very high lama in Tibet who suffered from a serious mental illness—probably bipolar illness or schizophrenia—and periodically behaved bizarrely. His mental illness did not seem to impair his spiritual status.” [iii]
Now, while I am the last person to compare myself with any of these great spiritual luminaries, it does seem clear to me that my depression, while it was making my family miserable and therefore needed to be treated, wasn’t as much of an impediment to my spiritual practice as the treatment has been. Which is where Kundalini Yoga comes in.
I was introduced to Kundalini Yoga by a fellow seminary student, who explained that the great advantage of this practice is that there are always several things to be aware of any given moment—an asana (posture,) a drishti (direction of gaze,) a mudra (position of the hands and fingers), and a mantra to keep track of all at the same time is not unusual. Which is what Swami Sivananda Saraswati meant when he said, “Why try to control the mind?” Just doing the kriyas (actions) will give the chattering monkey-mind plenty to keep it occupied.
(I remarked that the practice reminded me a little of the Episcopal liturgy, which many people complain about when visiting an Episcopal Church; there’s two books, they say [The Book of Common Prayer and the Hymnal], and I never know when I’m supposed to stand, or sit, or kneel, or what. I would tell them that yes, even after all these years and a lot of memorization, I still have to think a little bit about what to do next—but for me, that’s better than thinking about lunch.)
The chanting, pranayama (breath control) and physical actions of Kundalini Yoga give the puppy of my mind a bone to chew on, which keeps it from running all over the place as it otherwise would. And it doesn’t take very much. Yogi Bhajan taught a pranayama-based kriya called “When You Don’t Know What to Do” that is so simple, you wouldn’t think it would have any effect at all—but it does. After just a few seconds of this, my breathing depends and slows way down, and my mind becomes calm and stable. There are several variant out there; I use the version in psychotherapist David-Shannahoff-Khalsa’s Sacred Therapies: The Kundalini Yoga Meditation Handbook for Mental Health. I paraphrase it here:
Sit with a straight back, either cross-legged or in a chair. (Any comfortable cross-legged posture is fine.) Cross the hands with the right hand on top of the left, and the right thumb on top of the left thumb. Both palms face toward the chest, a few inches away from the sternum. With the eyes closed, focus on the space between the eyebrows (the kshetra of the ajna chakra, or “third eye) or at a point on the horizon. Then:
I. Inhale through the nose; exhale through the nose.
II. Inhale through the mouth, with the lips pursed as if to whistle; relax the mouth and exhale.
III. Inhale through the nose; exhale through the relaxed mouth.
IV. Inhale through the mouth with lips pursed; exhale through the nose.
Repeat this sequence for 11 minutes and, if you wish, gradually work up to 31 minutes.
And that’s it. This sublimely simple kriya, and other Kundalini Yoga practices, have rescued me from the trap of thinking that because I couldn’t sit still with a quiet mind, I couldn’t meditate. Try it yourself and see if it doesn’t quiet your mind and calm your nerves.
But if you’re depressed, I urge you to seek treatment. As John Tarrant of Sonoma County, California, roshi of the California Diamond Sangha, puts it,
“Teachings and practice can help you…but using dharma to affect a chemical balance is the long way round; it can be too late for some people. When there is a chemical imbalance in the body, it is a good idea to work with that chemically.” [iv]
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 Saraswati, Swami Sivananda, Kundalini Yoga Tantra. Yoga Publications Trust/Munger/Bihar/India; 8th Re-Print edition (June 12, 2001)